“What is that?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just doing this” *He eases his foot off of the hi-hat pedal, just a little bit, and taps the cymbals with the stick before closing the two cymbals tightly once again*
“That’s called a hi-hat sizzle.”
To this day, I don’t actually know what the technical term is for “Tsst!” in drumming. All I know is, if you ease your foot off and loosen the tension between the two cymbals a little…you can get this subtle sizzle…it’s like a…crude low-end crackle of white noise…
Recently, at a gig, I ran into the man who taught me this technique and I recounted this story in the comedic, self-deprecating manner I recount almost anything in life…and I got choked up.
What I felt, after a minute or two of analysis…was gratitude. I know this entire story seems…opaque…greyscale matter. Inconsequential. I would normally agree but…once recounted and, frankly, relived, I realized that there was such a blessing and providence in this memory. There was charity in it. Robbie was probably ten years older than me. He had more pressing concerns: Girls…like…all of the girls…He was well-spoken, had a velvety voice and easy smile to go with his easy nature and he was a teen with girls on the brain…but he took time, and gave me something.
It was small…probably a secondary…tertiary thought to him, but it opened a whole world for me.
When you sit and talk to Tony Moran…when you stop and listen to every word he has to say…you start to realize that his entire life is a collection of these small trinkets, small gestures, chance encounters that pull him forward into monumental breakthroughs; all while being simply dedicated to whatever the task was at hand. It’s not enough to say that he’s humble. Tony is grounded, rooted, and centered. Tony is here because someone took the time. Without ego or predication, Tony just moved in his world casually, searching for playmates –searching for his tribe. It almost doesn’t really matter that some of that tribe happens to be Donna Summer, Cher, Deborah Cox, Nile Rogers, Gloria Estefan, the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson…that’s not the point. The point is Tony builds communities through as many touches as possible. It’s all so innocent and childlike in the way that he approaches “networking” –approaches the music itself. He emphasizes trust. Trust. When you’re with him in the studio, the execs with their timelines and insensitivity to the creative process rolls away. He’s not trying to wrangle another coin out of your pocket or put himself in front of the camera so he can buy one more car to shepard in his last three cars that he doesn’t even drive.
Have you ever heard someone describe their career as what they would do even if they didn’t get paid for it? That’s Tony. The payment is the connection, the stories, the heartfelt music, the story of an album. The money is just a means to keep him alive this long. Even in his preparation for the Roseland Reunion show in NYC, on Sunday, September 24that Amadeus in Queens, he’s been preparing not only his body and mind but also preparing the audience —thinking of how to take an audience on a journey and giving himself the time and space to do so.
Born in Brownsville Brooklyn, the reality of stereotypical life in the projects took a backseat to the world his parents (and really, the proverbial village surrounding him) kept him engaged in.
“I was very lucky. I had a great mom and dad. We had a great sense of strength in family and other people in the neighborhood were very “birds of a feather”…They all made sure we made it home safe. They did their best to give us a full childhood and have a chance to just be kids. Humble beginnings but there was a lot of optimism for all the family members no matter what path they chose to take.”
I was taken aback by the wholesome nature of this opening. No fault of any human living, or posthumous, but a child’s innocence can be lost in the hustle and bustle of a fast-moving, grind culture, Gary Vee straining the muscles in his neck, kind of world. Our guardians can end up dumping their fears and concerns on you, out of a…need to just vent –out of a lack of handed-down options as to how one deals with the clutter of life’s constant poking and prodding; and the emotions and insecurities that haunt the inner recesses, like lecherous demons seizing on every little moment to remind you of your smallness. And that smallness then becomes the child’s smallness…and generational smallness becomes the all too familiar curse of people of color.
Tony’s circle prepared a very different place for him:
“You know, whatever you go through in life, as impossible as it would be to explain, what’s important is knowing people got you. At various times, I’ve been around people who’ve had all sorts of challenges…but it’s important to have an anchor in your life. It could come into your life as of now. When it comes, seize that. It’s more than a relationship. You’re given an opportunity to evolve in relationships and develop trust. Great things can happen when you can trust and extend trust.”
With these foundational pieces in place, Tony was free to be inspired. He didn’t need much. He went to the park jams; he listened to the music being played in the neighborhood; he worked himself down to a nub to afford a boombox…he’d hear DJ Red Alert and Tony Humphries on weekend shows…he could resonate, he could dance and feel free, and feel like this was really a birthright for him.
Tony often uses the phrase “break free” when describing how this music would make him feel. I probably could’ve asked further into what he meant but, I kind of glossed over it during the interview. I felt I knew exactly what he meant. My childhood was dotted with these important artists that helped me break free from…really everything. It’s not exactly a measure of bondage or hardships. No, this is about living in a world completely created, and inhabited, by your own imagination. A song comes on and everything disappears…even the positive things. There’s color, tone, passion, lightness. Your cells are on fire. There’s nothing else. I’ve gone to this place a few times in adulthood and forgotten to eat for 12 hours straight. The music had a monopoly on my time and attention…Maybe it’s an escapist in nature, at times unhealthy…who cares? It’s beautiful, nearly holy, when you find it; and when you talk to Tony, this is exactly what he sounds like: an apostle.
Even his chance encounters that lead to the creation of the Latin Rascals feels like biblical allegory.
“So, as I was DJing and doing block parties and go to school, I was working at Lord and Taylor’s…and I would frequent a record store in downtown NY near the World Trade Center. I’d go there with whatever I made and leave with no money to go home. My mom would give me two tokens to come home because she knew I’d leave broke. I’d go there and listen to records and I would just touch a promo…just touch it…even if I couldn’t buy it. I would just stand there. This was a time with boutique stores that would play various domestic songs and also carried imported songs that hard distinctive sounds that were related to hip hop!
“So people would feel sorry for me and Frankie Ramos, the owner of Downtown Records, said ‘Why don’t you just work here, pack boxes and we’ll work out a deal so you can have the records you want?’ So, I was doing my mixtapes, and Kenny Carpenter would come in. He was playing at Bonds. This was pre-Devil’s Nest, pre-Roxy, pre-Heartthrobs…and Larry Levan would come in…I never really got a chance to work with him, but he was pivotal to the underground scene…all these major names would come into the store to hunt down music.”
“Eventually, the store let me play music on the turntable to sell to people! And I just got so into it! Then I would overhear conversations that people on radio stations were required to record on a reel-to-reel. So, as I was working at the record store, another DJ from Harlem would come in and apparently, we were living parallel lives. He was using the pause button on a cassette deck to edit. I was too but I was using different skills. His name is Albert Cabrara! So, he would come in and was like ‘Hey, can I play you my mixtape?’ and I’m like ‘OF COURSE!’ and I would play him my mixtape. His stuff dropped my jaw. I said ‘We gotta connect!’ So, we got together and he’d remix and re-edit my stuff. We were just feeding off each other and we created our own sound. We were so into what the other one was doing…and it just grew from there. Once we started doing stuff together, things started moving. I would show people 15 min of my mixtape to almost every customer at the record store. One customer was the program director of WKTU in NYC at the time –the late, great Carlos DeJesus. He helped introduce electronic music into commercial formats like freestyle, and pre-freestyle music. House and disco were electronic as well but still had a lot of acoustic instruments, so they didn’t stand out specifically as purely electronic. He was commercializing that more electronic sound.”
“So, when I played my stuff for Carlos, he was like… ‘cut it down to 45 min and bring it to the radio station tomorrow. We’ll play it.’ So, Albert and I edited it all night to cut it down. So, we brought it to the radio station on a reel-to-reel we found in a junkyard. The radio station played it on their lunchtime program, hosted by DJ Paco Navarro (the late and great). He played our first tape and after he played it, they got thousands of phone calls to play it again. They had requests for days and days in a row. He actually gave us our name. He said ‘You know what? They did it again! The Latin Rascals!’ We actually recorded when Paco said that and used his snippet as the overdub for all of our tapes. Thank God he didn’t say the Glow Stick kids or something…”
“Eventually, it all just caught on to the point I had to quit my job. You know, sometimes you’re just ready for the next move. So, we just started taking songs we wanted to play and we weren’t just mixing differently, we were editing the songs the way we wanted them. And apparently, music producers like Arthur Baker, Mark Kamins (producer go Madonna’s “Borderline”, Bobby O (producer of Pet Shop Boys and Divine and Kurt’s Blow (legendary pioneer of Hip Hop) were listening to our tapes. Arthur called the station and was like ‘Who the f— just edited my Cyndi Lauper remix?!’ and I mean he’s a big deal. He’s done Planet Rocket, Hall and Oates…everyone. So, he ended up getting my mother’s number and set up a meeting with myself and Albert. That very day, we ended up working for Diana Ross, on the song ‘Swept Away’ which brought us into working on the majority of the BEAT STREET movie soundtrack produced by Harry Belafonte that almost all freestyle music related.
And as much as that story may come off as a whirlwind, to speak to Tony felt as though that’s exactly how it was all perceived. Like, step one on the yellow brick road leads you directly to the wizard by page 3. Maybe that’s the perception when you’re more enveloped in the wonder of the art itself. I mean, Tony is inside every bit of 80o count threads of music. Techniques, time stamps, signature sounds, even the science as it’s perceived by the human ear all interests Tony…seemingly more than the accolades or “arriving”.
“You know, there’s something about the waves and frequencies on the radio…Like the difference between AM and FM, there’s a different kind of compression. FM makes everything sound wider or LARGER.”
Who else notices that?
But this is the world of Tony Moran. The details are the entire landscape of the thing. Tony lives in the blind spots.
And like this, Tony and Albert began to take off as the Latin Rascals…and much like The Wizard of Oz, the right cast of characters showed up and carried them forward.
Characters like Andy Panda, who’d already landed some amazing opportunities writing and mixing for Nayobe. He pushed Tony to be comfortable at the microphone when he was making the “Bach to the Future” tape, in a way that is beyond comical and disarming.
Together with Sa-Fire, DJ Little Louie Vega, and a very young Marc Anthony, this group supported each other for a decade plus as their individual and collective stars rose.
John “Gungie” Rivera became an integral part of Tony’s life as well.
“I became eligible to join a record pool. It was a music promotions club, where record companies could go once a week to a place, bring promos of music, play music, and give opportunities to people of various genres to network. IDRC was the premier place to network music and John Gungie Rivera himself was a DJ, so was Little Louie Vega…and all of us packed and unpacked boxes for people who were at a higher level than us. As we were contributing and evolving, all those people that were around us were rooting for us. Gungie was at the heart of it. He was finding his own path…mixes of his own, producing music, and eventually stratospheric levels of music promotion and event promotions.”
I mean…imagine: This is your team. Need vocal coaching? Visit Marc Anthony at his house. Need promotion? John Gungie Rivera is a phone call away. Need encouragement? Where’s Andy? “This is so stupid!”, Andy Panda would say in an almost Little Italy “Paisan”, Gotti in Zegna era accent, as Tony would tell it.
Tony used their energy, their encouragement, and their love to feel like it belonged among these amazing stars, all throughout the freestyle era.
Tony took the same way of working with the big pop stars he found himself eventually working with like Luther Vandross, and Celine Dion…he did his homework, more homework than the next guy…but he was never rigid.
“That’s how I found myself working on an album project with Gloria Estefan, where she chose to use a DJ to produce her entire album, called ‘Gloria’. I was nominated for two Grammys for two of those songs I recorded for her. That’s how I went from remixing one song with Luther to producing three songs. That’s how I went from remixing songs for Michael Jackson’s collection of the history album to helping collect and give my professional take on remixes done by multiple famous people to be put together…it was like an advisory role in a focus group.”
All of this, he did in stride…he took calculated risks but avoided being stubborn. Tony’s approach to working with artists is as much a science as it is…making your mother’s Sancocho: This ain’t in a recipe book. You have to season and taste as you go. Everyone is different, and Tony doesn’t force his world onto others. He’s still that kid, saying “You want to hear my mixtape?” and that’s that. He starts there and remains flexible.
“I don’t have bad memories. Whatever challenges I had to face…it’s part of the dream. Not a struggle. If you want to be a great basketball player, you have to go to practice 5 times more than everyone else. You have to focus your energy at the right time. You have to preserve energy. You have to be aware. It’s about how you accept who you want to be! Mistakes and all! You don’t have to beat yourself up or explain yourself.”
Tony continues to work and collaborate and be the most valued ear and shoulder in the industry because of this love and respect…and discipline in regards to his craft.
When I asked him what ‘s been doing recently, it was much the same. He’s still in the halls of the giants, inspiring people and crafting classics. He’s also crafting a show for the Roseland Reunion Show that John Gungie Rivera and Lucho are putting on in New York –a revue and renewal of the iconic sounds of the freestyle era. Tony outlined his outlook on the way he wants to approach the show and his fans.
“I want people to feel the same energy that they felt when they heard it the first time. I got calls to do 10-minute shows…small things…and it was so dissatisfying to think I can genuinely express myself with such limited time. I don’t want to come back to this music and do a drive-by. So when I spoke to Charlie Rodriguez, the producer and promoter, I told him I wanted to do a full set so I could talk, breathe, sing, and warm up the crowd. I need more time. You’re paying me to touch these people. This is me taking the time to do that.”
It’s a real service to him. It reminds me to do this in my own artistic pursuits: What’s going to light them up the way music lights me up?
When I asked Tony what he would like to be his advice to musical aspirants or…really anyone reading this piece, he dropped a gem that just about sums up his entire journey thus far:
“I want people to realize that your mind is open to discover more. It’s not about the opportunities. You can go from mopping the floors of a building to owning it, and every part of the experience was important. Who I am has come from me knowing that I wasn’t running toward the thing that was cool. I was just following my heart. People have been very patient with that. I’m dipping my feet back into Freestyle because of my relationships with Gungie, with Lucho…I’m not trying to live up to being something I was when I was 21. I’m just doing my best right now. I’m just grateful.”
I took a beat. I sighed a sigh of deep relief after Tony said this, and I said,
“I…I don’t know. You’re speaking my language.”